Academic journal article Anglican and Episcopal History

Echoes of Medieval Women in an Early Byzantine Church the Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna, Sunday, 6 July 2008

Academic journal article Anglican and Episcopal History

Echoes of Medieval Women in an Early Byzantine Church the Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna, Sunday, 6 July 2008

Article excerpt

The Basilica of San Vitale is one of the world's most important church buildings. It is a rare surviving example of church architecture from the first golden age of Byzantine art. Its unusual adaptation of the central plan beloved of eastern Christians inspired the chapel of Charlemagne's palace at Aachen. The glory of its sixth-century mosaics is universally recognized. It is featured in almost every history of art and architecture and in almost every Italian tourist guidebook. Today it serves a full-time vocation as a public monument, although during tourist season mass is celebrated there once every Sunday. In the summer of 2008 an Anglican visiting Ravenna discovers that one of these Sunday services will be quite an unusual one. The Ravenna Festival has scheduled a mass every Sunday for five weeks at different churches on the theme "women's voices in the liturgical mystery: in templo domini," and the fourth of these is to be at San Vitale. A women's ensemble will sing a mass setting for the Nativity of Mary constructed mainly from the music of a fourteenth-century Spanish monastery of women. The visitor will find this eucharist to be an intense and enthralling experience.

Ravenna began on islands in a lagoon sheltered from the Adriatic Sea by sand dunes. (With centuries of silting, it is now located several miles inland.) It was federated to the Roman Republic in 89 BCE, and became strategically important in 45 BCE when Augustus Caesar created a huge military harbor in what became the neighboring town of Classis (the Latin word simply means "fleet"), with a connecting canal to the Po River. In the next century a common wall was built around Ravenna and Classis, and aqueducts were built from the hills twenty miles away. In 402 the inept western emperor Honorius, having discovered from unhappy experience that Milan was vulnerable to barbarians, moved to Ravenna. The new capital was a sensible choice because of its excellent harbor, its sea-link to Constantinople, its assured supply of drinking water, and its marshy surroundings, which made it virtually impregnable to attack by land. It was the chief residence of the remaining western Roman emperors, succeeded in 476 by the first Germanic ruler of Italy, Odoacer, and then of his murderer and successor, Theodoric the Ostrogoth, who oversaw a splendid period of building before his death in 526. A dozen years later Ravenna was rejoined to the Eastern Roman Empire by Justinian's generals, and for the next two centuries it remained the emperor's chief political, religious, economic, and cultural center in Italy. After that, with the departure of the Byzantine exarchs, Ravenna lost its importance.

The Basilica of San Vitale was originally planned by the Catholic bishop Ecclesius during Theodoric's reign - for although Theodoric was an Arian Christian, he extended toleration to Catholics. The church was completed and consecrated in 548 under Justinian's compliant local archbishop Maximian. It commemorated the obscure St. Vitalis, possibly a slave who was martyred under Diocletian. A legend circulated that Vitalis had died in Ravenna, although his remains had been found in the early 390s in a Jewish cemetery in Bologna, as we know from Ambrose, who attended the exhumation, and transferred some of the relics back to Milan. From the tenth century to the Napoleonic period the church was owned by the Benedictines, who attached a monastery to it. At that point its condition was poor, and since then there have been several projects of reconstruction and restoration.

The church is designed as an octagon under a dome, except that a long choir or presbytery backed by an apse extends the east wall, while at the west wall a long and imposing narthex or vestibule is set at a strangely nonsymmetrical angle. Architecturally, the building is in reality not one octagon but two concentric octagons, the inner octagon containing the nave, the outer octagon comprising an aisle below and gallery above. …

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